Canada
5 min

Base health policy on science, not paranoia

Don't let the nut cases decide how to treat patients

This year marks three significant anniversaries in the struggle between scientific reason and religious superstition.

By now most people know that 2009 marks both the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Less well known is that 2009 also marks 400 years since Galileo unveiled the telescope. Galileo used it to prove that the sun did not orbit the earth, leading the Catholic Church to sentence him to spend his last decade under house arrest.

The Church, centuries later, admitted Galileo was right and even apologized to him. Today, few people argue that the earth is the centre of the universe. Darwin, however, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus in his favour, continues to be ridiculed by religious extremists.

Millions of Christians and Muslims continue to insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that God made the world several thousands years ago and that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. Some of these idiots even make it into high political office, and not just in the US — yes, I’m looking at you, Stockwell Day.

But while it’s worrying that millions of true believers are willing to make fools of themselves to the rest of the world by insisting on following a ludicrous myth, what’s more worrying is that that contempt towards science and reason has permeated the wider society.

The most striking example is the current uproar over flu vaccinations in Canada and elsewhere. It seems that the mere mention of vaccinations is enough to return people to the Dark Ages of reason, where celebrities like Jenny McCarthy become prophets for proclaiming that vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella cause autism and puritans believe that the HPV vaccine will turn young girls into sluts and prostitutes. It’s true the shots aren’t foolproof; the flu shots don’t always protect against the strain that happens to dominate in a given season. But the arguments by skeptics that the shots make one sick or inject government tracking devices or give control of your brain to the Freemasons just don’t hold water.

It’s ridiculous that even many healthcare workers, whose job it is to care for the sick, refuse to get flu shots, although their arguments are couched more in the language of free choice and fear of less outlandish side-effects than anti-scientific paranoia. That choice, though, can endanger vulnerable patients, and it seems ridiculous to me that those whose job it is to care for the sick would jeopardize their patients because they don’t want somebody telling them to get a shot.

According to the Toronto Star, the median rate for healthcare workers in Toronto’s acute care hospitals who got flu shots was 42 percent. The Ottawa Citizen says the rate in that city was 50 percent. Nova Scotia’s Chronicle-Herald says the rate in that province was also just 50 percent. Several American reports say the rate of immunization among healthcare workers in the US is also only 50 percent.

Experts say that refusal is endangering patients. In 2006, Dr Allison McGeer, head of infection control at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told the Canadian Press that “Most of us know that patients get hospital-acquired influenza all the time, and most of that probably is from healthcare workers.”

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has called for the mandatory flu shots for healthcare workers as a means of protecting patients, as has the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Katherine Harris, a Rand Corporation researcher who studies flu vaccine acceptance in the US, told the Chicago Tribune, “We think health care workers should understand how viruses work, how they are transmitted and the dangers posed to their patients if they should be exposed to somebody actively shedding the virus…. It’s a lot of expensive hassle to reach people who are supposed to vow to do no harm to protect themselves and their patients.”

“The last thing we should be doing is putting our patients at risk when it is totally unnecessary. In a patient-care sort of setting, this is a big, big safety issue,” Jorge Parada told the Tribune. Parada is the director of infection control at Loyola University Health System, a Chicago-area hospital that requires employees to get flu shots.

A few other hospitals in North America, including North Bay General Hospital in Ontario, have made flu shots mandatory. And this year, New York became the first state or province in North America to make it mandatory for all healthcare employees.

And according to the Toronto Star, Dr David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health, wants the Ontario government to make it mandatory for healthcare workers province-wide. Dalton McGuinty has refused.

I just know that if I have to go to the hospital this winter, I would like to be sure that the medical staff taking care of me won’t make things worse by exposing me to germs that they could easily have been vaccinated against. And they have the right to expect the same thing from me.

This year, the situation has been made much worse by the swine flu, or H1N1 influenza as the pig farmers prefer. First the media plays it up as the next bubonic plague, sweeping all sorts of susceptible idiots along in its panicky path. Now Canada’s whole flu vaccination program has been thrown into chaos by a single unpublished study, whose results have not been duplicated or verified or reviewed by peers, claiming to show that getting the regular annual flu shot makes those under 50 more vulnerable to the swine flu.

The study has been repudiated by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Centres for Disease Control and scientists in Europe, but provinces across Canada have opted to delay implementing their flu shot programs out of fear that the public will believe the fear-mongering.

Now, most provinces are continuing to provide flu shots for the elderly, but the furor over this study and the panic stoked by the media will likely scare some off. The result could very well be that some elderly people die from contracting an ordinary case of the flu that might have been prevented by getting a simple shot.

And why? Because we seem as a society to be drifting towards a Christian Science approach to healthcare, where faith is seen as the primary method of healing, not medicine or scientific discovery.

We’re already busy turning over our governments and social services to religion. Now we appear, as a society, to be turning our healthcare over to witchdoctors, quacks, media alarmists and paranoid fantasists.

So get your flu shot, people, or the wackos win.

***

In a similar vein, “US states whose residents have more conservative religious beliefs on average tend to have higher rates of teenagers giving birth,” says an MSNBC story. “The relationship could be due to the fact that communities with such religious beliefs (a literal interpretation of the Bible, for instance) may frown upon contraception, researchers say. If that same culture isn’t successfully discouraging teen sex, the pregnancy and birth rates rise.”

In other words, using religious belief instead of sex education and preaching abstinence instead of birth control and safer sex leads to ignorant teenagers who have sex anyway and get pregnant.

Faith in God doesn’t work. Education and knowledge does.

***

What does all this have to do with gays? Nothing specifically. But what these issues have in common with homophobia is ignorance. We don’t all need to be scientists or doctors, but if we relied more on fact and experience than fantasy and myth, the world would be a less prejudiced place.